In February 2022 DLA Piper published an article on the winter update (the “Winter Update”) to Project Gigabit (“Project”) and the developments made by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (“DCMS”) as it progresses towards national coverage of gigabit-capable broadband. Further detail on the overall Project can be found in DLA Piper’s earlier article, issued in March 2021.

A year on from their initial publication, DCMS have now issued their second ‘Spring Update’ (“Update”).

Among other items, this season’s update:

  • examines the success of the project since Building Digital UK (“BDUK”) became an Executive Agency;
  • highlights the development made in pursuit of the Project delivery plan and a wider ‘Gigabit UK’;
  • Provides investors updates on the wider commercial investment in UK gigabit infrastructure; and
  • Provides stakeholders with a number of policy, legislative, and regulatory updates put in place to aid in the push towards gigabit connectivity.

Building Digital UK

In DLA Piper’s previous update it was announced that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (“DCMS”) had decided to make BDUK an Executive Agency. In doing so, it was hoped that the greater operational autonomy would allow greater focus on the Project and its branch off matters, such as the Shared Rural Network. In April 2022, this was finalised, marking an important moment for the delivery of the UK’s digital infrastructure.

Since their appointment, BDUK has listed a number of “key milestones”, including:

  • over 100,000 broadband vouchers issued, worth more than £185 million, with 65,000 claimed to date to support households and businesses with the additional costs of securing gigabit-capable connections;
  • conclusion of the Local Full Fibre networks programme in March 2022, delivering connectivity to more than 5,000 public buildings, and 500 public assets (such as schools and hospitals); and
  • completion of over 20 market engagement exercises that will be used to continue to shape future procurements.[1]

As DCMS note, a new governance structure has now been put in place to provide expert advice and independent oversight for the Project. Their Corporate Plan, alongside updates to their programmes and leadership information can be found on their new website.

Progress towards a Gigabit UK

Project growth

Gigabit coverage continues to grow within the UK. It is estimated that roughly 68% of UK premises now have access to gigabit-capable broadband. While there was an initial rate of growth increase during the early stages of the project, it is suspected that this rate of expansion will slow over the course of the next few years. This is because, as DCMS flag, many of the upgradable areas of infrastructure are already complete and therefore new focus must be directed at completely new fibreoptic infrastructure (which is much more labour intensive and slow moving).

Coverage at home and work

The Update reports that an increasing number of both home and business premises are being passed as gigabit-capable (meaning that the premises are capable of download speeds of at least 1 gigabit-per-second). In January 2022, it was estimated that 66% of residential premises and 40% of business premises had access to this new infrastructure. This is a substantial increase from just a year ago when only 37% of residential properties and 26% of businesses had access to gigabit services. In a recent ‘Connected Nations’ update it was determined that this rapid increase has been driven largely by a combination of the continued rollout of new full-fibre broadband and the large-scale upgrade of existing infrastructure by suppliers.

Rural areas

In January 2022, it was reported that 30% of rural premises had access to gigabit connectivity – an increase from 19% in January 2021. While developments in rural areas has been slower than in urban areas, this is down to the large-scale upgrades of existing supplier cable networks noted above – of which most are present in urban areas and more sparse in rural areas. It is however expected that as investment continues to grow, alongside a number of incentives and subsidies, connectivity to rural premises will also continue to develop.

Wider Commercial Investment into gigabit infrastructure

DCMS report that the UK’s broadband infrastructure is key in driving coverage of gigabit-capable broadband across the UK, particularly in cases of deeper rural territory. In the last 3 months, the broadband sector has continued to attract new commercial investment which, as DCMS note, is likely responsible for the rapid progress made in expanding coverage and reaching some of the Project’s “key milestones” (as highlighted above).

The demand for faster and more reliable coverage has led to the digital infrastructure sector becoming an increasingly valuable asset for investment. Since the Winter Update, over £1 billion of new funding has been announced, alongside a number of new entrants entering the market.

While market dynamics have changed somewhat, given recent global events, DCMS note that they have seen no significant impact on the deployment of broadband infrastructure, and it therefore continues to be a valuable prospect for prospective investors.

Updates to policy, legislation, and regulation

Very Hard to reach premises

DCMS do however acknowledge that the progress made still has areas in which it can improve. For those deemed ‘very hard to reach’ premises that will not be feasible to reach under the Project, DCMS is currently assessing policy options on means of best addressing the shortfall, following a call for evidence on improving broadband for very hard to reach areas.

DCMS will consider all available solutions with further details to be published later in the year.

Cost of Living

In light of increasing pressures on household spending, DCMS are working closely with Ofcom to monitor affordability of telecoms services.

A range of low-cost, fixed broadband social tariffs for households in receipt of universal credit (and other means-tested benefits). These offers, from a number of suppliers start at roughly £10 and are available across 99% of the UK. In April of this year, the Secretary of State for DCMS also wrote to providers asking them to do more to promote these tariffs to ensure that those in need are aware of them.

DCMS is also working with charities, consumer groups, and other governmental departments to support efforts to engage households eligible for such support, while continuing to encourage all fixed-line suppliers to do all they can in supporting their customers.

Barrier Busting

Over the last three months, DCMS’s ‘Barrier Busting Taskforce’ has continued to work towards identifying and addressing barriers to fast, efficient, and cost-effective deployment of gigabit-capable broadband. In response to some of their findings, the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill (the “Bill”) was introduced. The Bill includes a number of regime relaxing measures, such as the ability for suppliers to upgrade and share underground equipment installed prior to 2017.

A statutory consultation on legislative proposals futureproofing new homes with fast broadband was also published in December 2021, including measures ensuring that construction of new homes required installation of gigabit-capable systems. Responses to the consultation are currently being processed and subsequent legislative proposals are to follow in due course.

Alongside these developments, the Telecoms Infrastructure (Leasehold Property) Act 2021 gained royal assent, creating a process to allow operators to make applications to the courts for access to blocks of flats in instances where they face uncooperative landlords. A consultation on the regulations required for its implementation closed in August 2021, with further questions sent to respondents in March 2022. Once the regulations are finalised, the act will take official effect.

Fibre in water

Following selection, a consortium has been awarded a total grant of £3.2 million to trial a ‘fibre in water’ solution, using the drinking water network  to connect some of the hardest to reach areas in the UK, while also reducing water leakage in the area. The project is also set to test whether fibre can be deployed using alternative means to the standard Public Switch Telephone Network and 2G/3G systems. The project is being led by DCMS, in partnership with the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, and the Geospatial Commission.

DLA Piper continues to monitor updates and developments to Project Gigabit. For further information or if you have any questions please contact the authors or your usual DLA Piper contact. 

[1] These engagement locations include: Leicestershire and Warwickshire (Lot 11), Nottinghamshire and West of Lincolnshire (Lot 10), West Yorkshire and parts of North Yorkshire (Lot 8),  South Yorkshire (Lot 20) and Scotland (Lot 39) Herefordshire (Lot 15), Lincolnshire and East Riding (Lot 23), Cheshire (Lot 17), Gloucestershire (Lot 18), Oxfordshire and West Berkshire (Lot 13), Kent (Lot 29), Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and East of Berkshire (Lot 26), Staffordshire (Lot 19), West Sussex (Lot 1), East Sussex (Lot 16), Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire and Milton Keynes (Lot 12), Derbyshire (Lot 3), Wiltshire and South Gloucestershire (Lot 30), Lancashire (Lot 9) and Surrey (Lot 22) and Wales (Lot 42).